Local nightclub adjusts business model to remain open during pandemic
The idea of dancing shoulder-to-shoulder in a sweaty, dimly lit nightclub and crowding around the bar to order a cocktail has been completely diminished by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Lounges and nightclubs were faced with the decision to either pivot their business model, buy tables and chairs and figure out how to serve food, or to simply shut down operations.
EOS Lounge, at the corner of Haley and Anacapa streets, accepted the challenge of turning its typical standing-room only setup to mimic that of a restaurant.
According to EOS owner Bix Kaufman, the iconic Santa Barbara nightclub will be able to weather the storm, but the biggest hurdle of all is meeting customers’ expectations.
“We are not allowed to have any dancing. We haven’t had any dancing this whole time,” he told the News-Press. “It’s definitely, I would say, a shift in people’s expectations … Places like us and Wildcat, we have the biggest challenge because people have expectations that they’re going to a nightclub, but when they get here, they realize we’re serving food and we’re not a nightclub and not dancing.”
The owner said that without a kitchen, it was a “battle on its own” to figure out how to adjust the venue. The club has been using two different food vendors — State Street’s Buena Onda Empanadas and Delicioso, a local Mediterranean food truck. Logistically, he had to purchase lots of tables and chairs for the requirement that every customer must be seated.
“We’ve never even had proper servers before,” Mr. Kaufman said. “Operating with servers is definitely different for us versus people walking up and ordering a drink at the bar.”
The owner also had to hire additional bouncers and security, saying that another trial for the club has been the expectation of EOS employees to control customers in the surrounding areas of the building, which is public property, if they’re waiting in line or just not seated yet.
“A lot of difficulty comes from the people’s freedom to gather and do as they want in public space,” he said. “It’s a logistical nightmare trying to control really enthusiastic people that want to get into a restaurant and bar … Because it is a public space, people have expectations that they can do whatever they want.”
Mr. Kaufman said EOS received a warning from the Santa Barbara County Public Health Department via email during the first week in June when things first opened back up. He said the guidelines remained fairly unclear during the first month or so that businesses were able to reopen,and he noted specific confusion about businesses having to close down for July 4. The club owner said prior to the holiday, all restaurants and bars were told they have to close, but on the holiday itself, they were told they can open. EOS was unable to do so on such short notice.
Last Halloween, Mr. Kaufman said the health department came into EOS and found a couple people standing with no masks on at the time, so they held a hearing to clear up any confusion with the guidelines. It was a night Mr. Kaufman said they “learned a lot from,” specifically on how to control crowds.
“I have to say, this goes on in every business in town. Within seconds, someone can be not compliant and they take their mask off and then it’s corrected soon afterward,” Mr. Kaufman said. “When people are violating rules, they’re usually corrected within seconds or minutes. It’s not something that we just let happen for the night … I wouldn’t necessarily say there’s anything a restaurant or bar can do other than remind people.
“Halloween was the first holiday that we had been open since the pandemic started … No businesses really knew what to expect, and I don’t think the health department did either.”
However, he said that after constant reminders for the past few months, customers are now routinely following protocols. He added that EOS was never threatened to be shut down at any point.
Mr. Kaufman sang praises of the county’s assistance, especially with allowing bars to reopen with food, something he said EOS wouldn’t have been able to survive without. He said county health officials were “very helpful,” and said he has “nothing but positive things to say about them.”
“The guidelines have always been clear, but there’s been a little bit of gray area,” he said. He provided an example that live music was recently allowed again, but gatherings are still prohibited. “Both of those things contradict each other … That’s something that’s confusing for everyone. The health department had their own troubles navigating how to make sure that can be executed in a safe way.”
Now the club is open five days a week, Wednesday through Sunday, from 9 p.m. to 12:30 a.m. The owner predicts anywhere from two to four years to completely recover from the pandemic closures, but added that 90% of EOS staff has already been vaccinated.
“We want to stay open and stay relevant,” Mr. Kaufman said. “We don’t want people forgetting about us.”